The Banshees of Inisherin has got acres of coverage in the run-up to this year’s Oscars but the question remains: Just how good is it? The Irish Times gave it four stars and Rotten Tomatoes a 96 per cent rating, but on what criteria, exactly?
How to judge the judges has been a concern of literary criticism since that discipline was founded in antiquity. And it is back to Ancient Greece we travel for this week’s Unthinkable to try to establish a set of rules by which to measure the quality of Martin McDonagh’s movie, or any Oscar contender for that matter.
Aristotle is generally regarded as the first person to compose laws of criticism, making him not so much the original critic as the original metacritic. “His analysis of Greek drama set out the core elements of successful storytelling – ideas that continue to influence Hollywood scriptwriters today,” explains John Sellars, author of a new book, Aristotle: Understanding the World’s Greatest Philosopher (Pelican).
Plato’s most famous pupil examined the building blocks of drama so we can distinguish good works from bad. This fitted into his wider philosophical goal of explaining where truth comes from, be it in science, politics, morality or art.
“Plato had been a bit cautious about poetry and drama,” says Sellars. “His worry was that these things stir up and excite our emotions, and so make us less rational. Famously, he said he’d ban poets from his ideal state.
“By contrast, Aristotle thought that there could be some benefit from having our emotions provoked in this way. He used the term catharsis to describe the sort of emotional release we can get when connecting with emotions portrayed in drama and suggested that this can be therapeutic.”
So what kind of movies would they approve of?
“Plato’s ideal movie would presumably avoid provoking extreme emotions. In his ideal state it would promote values that are conducive to social harmony and cohesion. With Aristotle, in some ways it is harder to pin down. When he talks about drama, he is simply describing what makes a good drama, without necessarily stating his own preferences. But from what he says, it would probably be something driven by plot and character, something that tells important stories about the human condition,” replies Sellars, a lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has written several popular books on Stoicism. (We didn’t get into the Stoics’ viewing tastes but I’m guessing they like disaster movies.)
[ The Banshees of Inisherin: An uncomfortable question edges forward. Could it walk away with no Oscars? ]
Perhaps the most important concept in Aristotle’s essay Poetics is “the law of probability or necessity”. This states that acts within a drama follow a probable or necessary sequence. It should be clear to viewers why one thing follows another.
Here we hit upon a point of relevance to The Banshees of Inisherin. There has been much comment already about exaggerated Oirishness and romantic revisionism in McDonagh’s film – tweet-clad pub-goers Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell look “like a couple of ageing hipsters on a Wild Atlantic Way pit stop”, Hugh Linehan of this august publication has pointed out. But a more fundamental issue is episodic dissonance: Is the plot a little too contrived?
While this correspondent really enjoyed the movie, a niggle was the storyline around Jenny the donkey. Spoiler alert (plot detail ahead)! A turning point in the drama comes when Jenny dies, having choked on a human finger. Could this happen in real life?
Taking a lead from Aristotle, who emphasised the role of observation in establishing truth, Unthinkable sought expert advice from Donkey Sanctuary Ireland. Its manager Laura Foster says she personally has not come across a fatal choking case in her 2½ years at the 1,800-strong animal sanctuary. “We do talk about cutting up carrots” as a precaution during feeding, she says, but choking “is not in the top 10 things we would be concerned about”. She adds: “Certainly, eating flesh is not a problem.”
[ Yes, The Banshees of Inisherin is up for 10 Baftas. But is it just more Martin McDonagh shtick? ]
Statistics aside, there is a question of believability for the viewer. The tragedy only makes sense from a cinematic viewpoint if you buy into the unlikely relationship between Jenny, the miniature donkey, and Farrell’s character Pádraic Súilleabháin. A century ago, donkeys were “working animals” in Ireland and it is only more recently they became “companion animals”, Foster says.
“Their welfare has really suffered” in that transition, she adds. And while she has no problem with “creative licence”, she points out “we do not advocate donkeys going into people’s homes”. Also, “they should never be kept alone without another donkey”.
Am I just nit-picking?
“If you see a scene in a movie and the first thing you think to yourself is that this isn’t plausible, then you are no longer immersed in the story and something has gone wrong,” says Sellars. “Anything that distracts us from getting lost in the drama is, I take it, a weakness in the production. Aristotle was quite dismissive of excessive use of stage production or costumes in ancient drama – what matters is the story and the characters. I suspect he’d not have had much time for excessive reliance on special effects.”
In general, according to Aristotle, “any good drama must have a clear narrative, set up properly at the beginning and with a satisfying conclusion. There shouldn’t be any loose ends. At the same time,” says Sellars, “it ought to be realistic in the sense that it’s a story that could happen to someone, and that in theory that could happen to you, in order for it to be relatable.”
While Aristotle might dock Banshees a star for lack of realism, he’d probably add a star for comedy value. The Greek philosopher spoke of tragedy and comedy as the two pillars of drama, but Poetics only deals with the former, leaving some to speculate that there must have been a second book written by Aristotle devoted to jokes.
Can we surmise what kind of humour he approved of? “Like tragic drama, I assume it would have to be relatable and also give a good cathartic release of emotions, which good comedy certainly does,” says Sellars. “A good laugh can be as therapeutic as a good cry. Both can also bring people together because the audience share the same emotion when watching them. Perhaps that’s one way to think about the difference between watching a movie in the cinema and watching one alone at home.”
[ Thinking Anew – The wonder and mystery of friendship ]
There definitely are some good laughs in The Banshees of Inisherin and, while there has been mixed opinion about how emotionally engaging the storyline is, the movie wrestles with some big questions about justice, virtue and friendship. All these are key themes of Socratic dialogue from more than 2,000 years ago – so one could say there is something in the movie for both Plato and Aristotle. Surely there’s no higher praise than that, whether or not it gets the Academy Award for best picture.
Incidentally, if it’s donkey realism you’re after in this year’s Oscars, there can only be one winner – the arthouse movie EO, which follows the life of a donkey born in a Polish circus. (It’s up against An Cailín Ciúin in the international feature film category.) “Donkeys really help to tell the story of mankind as much as their own story,” says Foster. “People sometimes equate their stoicism or stubbornness to stupidity, but that could not be further from the truth. They are in fact incredibly intelligent, and are simply weighing up their response to a situation.”
Ask a sage
Are we living in the best of all possible worlds, as the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz would have us believe? Benjamin, the donkey from Animal Farm, replies: “God gave me a tail to keep the flies off but I would sooner have no tail and no flies.”